The March of Time

26: Barrels Out of Bond

Important A/N at the bottom

Chapter Twenty-Six: Barrels Out of Bond

"I'll wager the sun is on the rise," Bofur's gloomy voice echoed from his cell. "Must be nearly dawn."

"We're never going to reach the Mountain, are we?" came Ori's dejected voice, and it was so full of such crushing innocence and hopelessness that Bilbo felt his heart pinch painfully as he took off the ring and hurriedly stuffed it back into his filthy waistcoat pocket.

"Not stuck in here you're not," Bilbo chastised light-heartedly, stepping around the corner and into the view of the Company, and the effect was instantaneous.

The air of quiet glumness and unspoken despair vanished, turning into one of relief and unrestrained joy as the Dwarves saw Bilbo and began to cheer and shout, calling out greetings and questions to him that were making far too much noise, no matter how much the Hobbit enjoyed hearing their praise.

"Shh! There are guards nearby!" he hissed at the Company, but he couldn't keep the small grin off his face as he selected one of the keys and hurried to Thorin's cell, praying he had chosen the right one and sighing out his held breath when the Dwarf king's cell door unlocked with a click.

Thorin barreled out instantly, his jewel-blue eyes taking in the Hobbit in one scanning look Bilbo had become accustomed to, and the Dwarf king looked like he either wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, demanding what had taken him so long, or wrap him in another crushing embrace, two options that alarmed Bilbo equally.

Fortunately, Thorin only jerked his head in gratitude, and Bilbo flashed him a quick grin before rushing down the steps of the chasm-like dungeon and beginning the task of setting all the other Dwarves and Alison free. As all the Dwarves rushed out of the cells in their shirts and breeches, not having time to re-adorn their armor or cloaks, Bilbo received many congratulations and claps on the back and shoulders, only smiling slightly in return as he focused on the task at hand of setting the others free.

Honestly, you'd think I'd just won a war single-handedly from the way they're acting, Bilbo thought to himself as he sprang Bofur and the dimple-smiled Dwarf ruffled his curls, but he was still pleased, nonetheless, as he reached the last cell and opened it to nearly be mowed down by Kili, who immediately bolted out and clapped his brother into a tight but quick embrace.

"Alison!" Bilbo said in relief as the human girl stepped out of the cell behind Kili, and she smiled widely at the Hobbit before tackling him in her own hug.

"You came!" She said happily, releasing him as her green eyes took him in excitedly but knowingly as well, as if she had somehow known Bilbo was going to rescue them.

"Of course I came," he said, smiling back. "I couldn't leave you lot down here; or have you forgotten we have a kingdom to reclaim and a dragon to slay?" He winked cheekily, and she rolled her eyes.

"Still as sassy as ever," she replied, but Bilbo didn't mind the little jab; the last time he had seen Alison, she had been a ghost of her former self, this self, smitten with fever and trapped in her own mind from the water sickness, and he was just glad to have her back to normal again.

Bilbo snorted. "Yet you're the one behind bars, not I," he teased, and he unstrapped her swords from his back, handing them to her. "I believe these are yours, by the way."

Her eyes lightened considerably as she took them and strapped them on to her own back, looking immensely comforted to have them in her possession once more, and she followed Bilbo as they sprinted back up the stairs to where the Dwarves were congregated.

"C'mon, then!" Dwalin said, and he started up the staircase leading away from the dungeons until Bilbo called them back.

"No, not that way!" he called quietly. "Down here!"

He took off in the opposite direction, heading down the stairs and into the cellar, and after a slight hesitation he could feel the Dwarves' clomping boots following after him.

As they approached the narrower staircase outside of the cellar, Bilbo turned around and held a finger to his lips, beginning to tiptoe down the steps. The Dwarves followed behind, more slowly and cautiously than before, but Bilbo still winced at the echo of their heavy footsteps on the stone.

When he reached the cellar, he checked to make sure the three Elf-guards were still passed out at the table before stopping and gesturing for the others to follow him. Bilbo stayed where he was, counting each head that came down the stairs, and as Kili passed him, he heard the younger prince exclaim in an incredulous whisper, "I don't believe it! We're in the cellars!"

"You're supposed to be leading us out, not further in!" Bofur whipped as he too passed Bilbo, and he felt the Dwarves' misgivings grating on his patience.

"I know what I'm doing!" Bilbo hissed in what he hoped was a convincing tone, but the rest of his sentence was cut off as Bofur held up a hand and said, "Shh!", which Bilbo thought was rich, coming from him. Rolling his eyes as the Dwarf moved away cautiously, Bilbo directed the rest of the Company down the stairs until they were standing near the barrels, all of them looking confused as they swept their glances over anything but the barrels beside them.

Bilbo hastily hung the keys back on the hook, and he could feel Thorin's suspicious presence behind him as he turned around, meeting the king's puzzled stare before turning back to the others, just as there was a shout from above and then the clamor of many alarmed voices—apparently the Elves had noticed they were gone now.

"Everyone, climb into the barrels, quickly!" Bilbo hissed desperately as more voices took up the alarm that the prisoners were missing, and the Dwarves looked away from the stairs to stare at him as if he had just suggested they strip naked and dance in front of Smaug.

"Are you mad?" Dwalin growled. "They'll find us!"

"No, no, they won't! I promise you they won't!" he whispered frantically as the Dwarves all began to mutter suspiciously.

Bilbo looked to Thorin in frustration and some desperation, and the king searched his face carefully, looking doubtful, before he turned away from the Hobbit and snapped at the Company, "Do as he says!"

There was a moment of silence, until the voices of the Elves began to sound closer, and then the Dwarves and Alison dove into the barrels, Dwalin and Nori having to struggle with Bombur to fit the wide girth of the ginger Dwarf into one before them themselves climbed into their own.

Bilbo hurried over to the lever, thanking his lucky stars the Elves passed out at the table had not yet awoken, and he got ready to pull the lever when Bofur's head popped out of his barrel on the top of the pile, his eared hat flapping comically as he asked, "What do we do now?"

The other Dwarves and Alison poked their own heads out of their barrels, and Bilbo hid his laughter behind a cough before saying, "Hold your breath."

And with that, he pulled the lever back until there was a satisfying groaning noise from underneath the Dwarves. "Hold my breath?" Bofur repeated in confusion. "What do you me-ARGHH!"

Bofur ducked his head back into his barrel with a strangled yell as the floorboards beneath the barrels turned into a ramp and dipped down on one side, allowing the barrels to fall into empty air before landing with a distant splash into the Forest River below, the Dwarves' shocked yells and shouts following them down until the noise was cut off by the ramp settling back into place in the cellar floor.

The drunken Elves at the table snorted and began to stir, groaning, and Bilbo took that as his cue to leave. However, he stopped short as he finally realized he had a problem—he was trapped in the cellar.

The ramp had resealed, and it could only be opened if someone was pulling the lever, and Bilbo knew his small arms were not long enough to pull the lever and stay in the spot on the floor to be dropped down the ramp at the same time.

Well, this is lovely, he thought to himself as he looked around desperately, his mind whirring at his own stupidity. You absolute clot-head, Bilbo Baggins, how are you going to get yourself out of this mess? Politely ask one of the Elves to pull the lever so you can escape with their prisoners?

The shouts of the Elves from above were getting closer, and Bilbo felt sweat beginning to slick his palms as he started jumping on the floorboards, trying to force the ramp to come down without using the lever.

He kept stomping, probably looking like a headless chicken trying to do a jig, but he faltered and stopped, looking up to the stairs in panic as a distinctly female voice demanded, "Where is the keeper of the keys?"

Gulping, Bilbo began to shuffle backwards as footsteps echoed down the cellar stairs, and he heard the she-Elf's voice command, "Tolo hi!" It sounded so close that Bilbo scuttled back a few more steps, until he realized that he didn't need to—because his feet were already sliding backwards.

Bilbo looked down, his body going rigid as he realized he had finally gotten the ramp to come down and he was now sliding down it, still upright, as he began to hear the rush of the river water below him.

He glanced back up just in time to see the red-haired she-Elf come to a stop on the cellar stairs, followed by silver-armored guards, her jaw dropping open slightly as Bilbo fell out into empty air, a hoarse yell escaping his lips as he splashed into the cold water below.

He fumbled back to the surface, spitting and shaking his hair out of his eyes as someone—Nori—grabbed the back of his coat and pulled him up beside his barrel, where he immediately latched onto the side and tried to ignore the icy daggers of cold water stabbing into his skin.

"Well done, Master Baggins," said Thorin's voice, and the Hobbit glanced ahead to see Thorin in his barrel at the front of the group, silhouetted against the bright autumn sunlight of the early afternoon beyond him and the stone passageway they were currently in.

Bilbo raised a hand in dismissal, too cold and winded from the fall to say anything, and clung on even tighter to Nori's barrel as Thorin ordered, "Come on, let's go!"

The Company began to push themselves along the current, out of the passageway and into the openness beyond, picking up speed as their barrels finally began to move with the eddies.

"Hold on!" Balin cried as they reached the end of the passage, and Bilbo saw his white-knuckled grip on the barrel before the world fell out from beneath him, and he was plunged into the icy depths of the river.

Of all the fictional stories in the world, why did I have to get sucked into this particular one? Alison thought to herself, just as she was plunged down a small waterfall and dunked below the surface, the cold water like a slap in the face.

Almost immediately, though, the barrel she was in buoyed her back to the surface, and she gasped, shaking her dripping hair out of her eyes as the Company was swept downstream by the voracious and fast-flowing current, and it was all she could do to attempt to steer her barrel after the others and away from the rocks hemming in the river on both sides.

Despite the strenuous circumstance she was in right now, Alison knew she was going to thank Bilbo for this ingenious escape plan later; which, she should've seen coming, honestly. The escape from Mirkwood in the barrels was one of the key points in the book, which of course meant she had forgotten all about it until Bilbo had led them into the cellars and she had seen the things waiting for them. And now, all she had to do was focus on staying alive until they reached the end of this harrowing escape, and she was golden.

Which was going to be easier said than done.

Not even a second after thinking it, a clear, ringing horn sounded from the Woodland Kings' Halls behind them, echoing over the river and making Alison's heart speed up in anticipation and dread of what was going to happen next.

As they rounded a corner in the river, her breath caught in her throat as she realized they still had one more gate to go through before they truly reached the Forest River, and panic flooded her chest as the water-gate came into view, where a squad of armored Elf-guards stood positioned at the top, and they did not look happy.

As they neared the water-gate, Alison saw the portcullis below that was to be their escape route, and she watched in despair as the gate began to slowly shut, cutting off their access to the river beyond as the guards atop the gate drew wicked-looking swords that glinted in the afternoon sunlight.

And as Alison watched, breathless, as the portcullis shut and Thorin gripped the bars, giving them a forceful tug as if he could pull the iron apart with his bare hands alone, she could distinctly remember that this wasn't supposed to happen. They weren't supposed to be trapped. So why was this happening?

"No!" Thorin shouted as he tugged at the portcullis again, but to no avail. The gate was sealed shut, and the other Company members in their barrels began to pile up behind him as they had nowhere to go, and the current still pushed them greedily on.

From Alison's position, she was poised near the back of the Company, with Kili, Fili, and Nori in their barrels and Bilbo clinging onto Nori's beside her, and she looked up, seeing the Elf-guards above them as they prepared to do—whatever they were going to do to them. Capture them, kill them? Capture seemed more likely, so Alison braced herself to be dragged out of her barrel—but it never came.

There was a moment of deathly silence, as if the world had paused and held its collected breath, and then an arrow flew out of nowhere, embedding its tip deep into one of the guards' backs. Then there was a sigh, a slow exhale of a dying breath, and the guard keeled over, crumpling into a heap on top of the platform.

As soon as the Elf hit the ground, there was a savage snarl from above, and an Orc appeared over the gate above them, snarling and fierce with a crude bow in its hand as it leaped onto the platform with a harsh battle cry.

Alison watched, her blood freezing, as more Orcs took up the call and scrambled over the gate above them and melted out of the bushes on either bank, boxing the Company in and effectively trapping them. The Orcs roared and began to engage the Elves, who momentarily forgot about the Company as they fought the vile creatures, but unfortunately the Orcs were not so forgetful.

With a wild shriek, one of them leaped for the Company in the river, landing on top of Nori, but before Fili or Kili could reach it Bilbo had taken out his knife and jabbed it into the Orc's throat, swiftly killing it as it flopped into the river, its black blood beginning to cloud the clear blue water.

Pandemonium had erupted as the Elves and Orcs fought, and the ones that weren't fighting the guards were hurling themselves at the Company, blades and hatchets raised for death blows, but the Dwarves were experienced fighters, and were taking the Orcs down easily, though Alison knew they couldn't hold out indefinitely; they were at a disadvantage in the water, and only some of them had weapons they had taken from their dead owners, while the rest were defenseless.

And then it hit Alison that she had her swords back, and that she could use them. She reached back quickly, but her fingers had barely grasped the hilts when a weight slammed into her from behind, knocking the breath out of her lungs and dunking her head underwater before she came back up, coughing and spluttering as an Orc screeched from where it had landed on her. Alison rammed her elbow back, cracking the bone against the Orc's jaw, and it roared, yanking her head back by her hair and exposing her throat before Dwalin's meaty fist connected with its face and it fell back into the water, Bilbo quickly disposing of it with his blade.

"Thanks," Alison gasped to Dwalin, rubbing her neck, and the warrior nodded, about to say something sharp when he looked over her shoulder and paled.

Alison whirled around, her heart leaping to her throat as she saw Kili, climbing the stairs to the platform above them where the Elves and Orcs still fought, and she wondered what in the world he was doing until she noticed the lever on the platform, and she pieced two and two together.

She couldn't track Kili's progress, however, for just then another Orc came hurtling towards the Company, but this time Alison was ready. She ducked out of the way as it swung its blade down, and as it crashed into the water, she shot her hand out, as if on impulse, and grabbed the Orc's arm, twisting it back until she thought she heard a small pop, and the Orc bellowed in pain before being quickly silenced by Nori snapping its neck. Before it sank into the water, Alison grabbed its crude, rusty sword out of its hand and swung back around to where Kili was fighting with an Orc, throwing punches and dodging away from its knife as he tried to continue towards the lever.

"Kili!" she yelled, and in the quick second he glanced at her, she tossed the blade up to him, where he deftly caught it and beheaded the Orc easily, the creature's decapitated cranium missing her by inches as it flew into the water.

With the others taking care of the Orcs in the water and no new ones joining the fray at the moment, Alison watched Kili anxiously as he made it to the top of the platform, stabbing another Orc in the chest and losing his blade when it fell, and then reaching out for the lever—

Alison sensed it before she saw it, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up, just as an arrow whistled over her head and lodged itself firmly into Kili's thigh.

"Kili!" Fili's voice cried out from behind her, but the rest of the world fell into silence, the blood roaring in Alison's ears, as she watched, horror-stricken, as Kili staggered, his dark eyes going wide. As if in slow-motion, she saw his fingers grasp the lever, shaking, before his knees trembled and his legs gave out beneath him, and he collapsed to the platform with a cry of pain.

What was happening? This wasn't a part of the book, this wasn't anywhere close to the story-line; why was this happening? Kili—oh God no whywhywhywhy—

"Kili." Hearing the hoarse, ragged whisper from Thorin was possibly the worst thing Alison had ever heard in her life, and seeing the blazing blue eyes of the king go cold and wide and glossy like a frozen lake sent a spear of fire into Alison's gut, and she turned, following Thorin's gaze until her eyes landed on a monstrous Orc—and she used the term monstrous loosely, for this Orc was possibly even worse than Azog, crueler-looking and so much bigger.

She watched, as the huge creature reached for another crude, black arrow in the quiver at his waist, his bulging muscles rippling as his other hand held a roughly-worked bow that had to be as big as her body, and she involuntarily gulped as the Orc's dead, blank white eyes bored into Kili, struggling to get back to his feet, above them. But before the Orc could grab another arrow, another of the creatures leaped for Kili, it's sword raised, and Alison gasped, just as another arrow flew—but not from the huge Orc, and not aimed for Kili.

The arrow went straight through the Orc's throat, and the creature fell back over the wall with a keening wail around the arrow in its neck, just as Alison saw Tauriel leap from the bushes and begin to engage the Orcs, her arrows flying with deadly precision and hitting their killing mark every time.

The Orcs snarled, beginning to turn on her, and Alison feared the she-Elf was going to be dragged under a wave of savage Orcs until more arrows flew from the bushes, and Legolas emerged, firing shot after shot, as more Elven reinforcements rushed behind him, bows twanging and blades singing.

Alison could hear the gigantic Orc—who she assumed was the leader—roaring behind her, and she knew with an awful certainty that if they stayed under the bridge any longer, they were for sure going to be overpowered and killed.

"We have to get out of here!" Alison said, as Bilbo cut down another Orc with a look of clear disgust and some contempt, despite his ashy tone, and Alison knew the Hobbit wasn't enjoying killing, even if it was Orcs.

"You think?" Dwalin grunted, as he took the crude blade in his hand he had gotten from an earlier Orc and rammed it into the gut of another flailing creature; but the Dwarf's sharp remark had seemed to break the spell over Thorin, who blinked and came back to the present, the stillness of his gaze shattering and turning fiery again as he looked back up to the platform.

Alison copied him and looked up, and she felt her heart squeeze as she saw Kili, fighting to his feet as he reached for the lever; despite his injury, the stupid Dwarf was still trying to save them, and Alison didn't know whether to laugh or cry as Kili grabbed hold of the lever and pulled, collapsing back to the ground with another cry of pain as the portcullis swung open, and the Company was whisked through by the current.

She could hear the Dwarves' shouts as they were washed away, and Alison had a feeling there was another waterfall beyond the water-gate, but the only thing she could think about as her barrel began to be sucked away was Kili, who still lay on the platform, clutching his leg.

"Kili!" Fili cried again, and his older brother's yell seemed to jolt the younger prince back to his senses. With a grunt of effort, Kili rolled on his side and fell off the platform, back down to his empty barrel.

Fortunately, he landed in the barrel, but the arrow shaft protruding from his thigh hit the edge and snapped off, eliciting a sharp moan of pain from the Dwarf as he clutched the sides of the barrel in a white-knuckled grip, his face pale and his eyes half-closed, and Alison's heart gave another sharp twinge of fear for the Dwarf prince until the current swept him away, her following shortly behind.

As she passed through the water-gate, Alison looked behind her and saw the Elves and Orcs still battling it out, and she noticed with a thrill of terror that it looked like the Orcs were gaining an upper hand. Seeing the Company pass through the gate, the frightening Orc leader roared something in his black tongue, and the other Orcs began to make for the gate, presumably to follow them, but Alison's vision was cut off as her barrel was whisked under the gate and she was plunged down another waterfall, this one taller and rougher than the first.

Alison went under, and all she could see were bubbles until she bobbed back to the surface, but she could tell something was wrong before it even happened. The way her body had been positioned during the fall and the ferocity of the current had ricocheted her to the right, towards the high rocky bank, instead of shooting her down the middle of the river like the rest of the Company, and she felt a flare of panic as she threw her arms into the water.

Using all the upper body strength she possessed, Alison tried desperately to get her barrel back on-course, but it was no use; the barrel went to the shallows and scraped roughly on the sharp rocks under the surface, and she could hear the wood splintering on the stone as a violent vibration went through the barrel that made her teeth rattle in her skull.

The current pushed her relentlessly until the barrel was now wedged in between two large rocks, and no matter how hard she pushed or tugged, Alison couldn't free herself. And then she realized that even if she did manage to get unstuck, it would do her no good; looking down, she saw that the entire bottom of her barrel was destroyed from its clash with the rocks, and it was letting water in at an alarming rate and causing it to sink, no longer able to support her.

"Shit!" She said desperately; digging her nails into the rocks on either side of her, Alison hauled herself out of the barrel, wet hands scrabbling on stone as the raging river sucked at her clothes, threatening to pull her under along with the damaged barrel.

"Alison!" Fili yelled as he went whizzing by, and Alison's chest constricted as she saw the rest of the Company being borne away down the river, bobbing along in their barrels at breakneck speed, and she could only watch as the Dwarves were swept away downstream, away from her, and a crushing weight settled on her as she realized she wouldn't be able to follow them. Oh God

She couldn't stare after the retreating figures of the Dwarves for long, however, as an inhuman shriek sounded behind her, and Alison whirled, seeing a particularly nasty Orc charging for her, a rough-looking bow in its hands as it notched an equally horrendous arrow, and she realized then with a sort of morbid amusement that she was now stuck between a rock and a very hard place as the Orc took aim, snarling maliciously as more roars from its brethren sounded behind it, and she knew they would be on her soon enough.

Alison scrabbled back, slipping up the steep side of the bank and grasping a large rock that her palm landed painfully on, drawing a line of blood from where it scratched her, but she couldn't care less at that moment.

Grabbing the rock, Alison chucked it at the Orc aiming for her, catching it in the side of the head and snapping its neck back as its shot went wild, missing her by yards, but Alison knew she was only delaying the inevitable. She was scrambling up a steep bank with only two swords on her back, while the Orc had a long-range weapon, and she knew that its comrades would be with it very soon as the bushes behind it began to rustle and their footsteps and shouts came closer.

But before the Orc could turn its head again to face her, there was a deadly whistle, and then not one, but two arrows flew and embedded themselves in the Orc's eye sockets, protruding out the back of its skull. As it crumpled to the ground in a heap, Alison recognized one of them being an Elvish arrow, and, looking across the stream, her eyes landed on Tauriel and Legolas wading through Orc after Orc, and she saw the barest hint of a nod from Tauriel as the she-Elf shot down Orcs in droves. But as Alison launched herself onto even ground and drew her swords, she saw that the other arrow was sleek and black, but not an Orc arrow…

At that moment, Orcs began to pour out of the bushes, and Alison's survival instincts whipped into a frenzy. As one Orc came at her, raising its mattock, she ducked beneath its guard and quickly disposed of it using Natrem, ignoring the twist to her gut as she did so. She spun around as another Orc charged at her right guard—but then abruptly stopped as another black arrow pierced through its snarling maw, and the Orc fell before her.

"Well, I'm glad to see you've left me at least some vermin to kill, cousin," a voice drawled, and Alison turned, her heart dropping out of her chest to her toes as Johnathan came flying out of the bushes like an avenging angel, his pale hair glinting fire-bright in the sunlight and contrasting sharply with his black clothes and bow as he notched three arrows in quick succession, taking down three Orcs in less than five seconds before turning to Alison, that signature smirk on his face despite their harrowing predicament.

"Johnathan?" Alison said, nearly choking on her disbelief as her "cousin" stood before her, shaking his overlong bangs out of his eyes and grinning at her. "What—how are you—I don't—"

"Smashing to see you, too," he quipped, before shooting another arrow, almost lazily, at a screeching Orc crashing out of the undergrowth. "But I'm afraid we should be more concerned on staying alive right now rather than my unexpected arrival, don't you think?"

Alison blinked once, before shaking her head and settling back into her survival-mindset, raising her swords once more. "Agreed," she said, as an Orc launched itself at her and she cut it down easily, surprising herself at the speed and ease with which she reacted. "I need to get downstream, now."

Johnathan nodded brusquely. "There's a large squadron of Orcs moving down our left flank and making for downstream, but I don't think they're trying to cut us off. I think they're going after your little, ah…barreling friends."

"Then we need to hurry," she said, ignoring his pun with a roll of her eyes; of course Johnathan would be the only person to make jokes in a situation like this.

"I'll shoot from behind while you clear a path in front," he said, and Alison nodded, swallowing away the sudden tightness in her throat.

You can do this, she thought fiercely. Think of the Company; they need you right now.

"All right, let's go," she said, gripping her swords more tightly, and then she took point, sprinting down the bank as Johnathan followed, his bow twanging as the Orcs chasing after them caught up, their snarls and growls punctuating the air as they ran.

In only a few moments, they caught up to the large group of Orcs running in front of them, and Alison steeled her nerves before pitching herself at the stragglers, cutting them down without a second thought as they screeched in surprise and swiftly fell. Their cries alerted the other Orcs, who slowed down somewhat and looked over their shoulders, snarling as they saw Alison and Johnathan racing for them.

Alison mowed through the creatures, twirling her blades with a deadly finesse she hadn't known herself capable of, and she found to her intense shock through her adrenaline-flooded brain that she was slicing through the Orcs like butter almost, her mind seeming to be on auto-pilot as she jabbed and swung and parried like she'd been fighting for years, not only months.

As her and Johnathan pushed farther down the bank, trying to catch up to the Orcs who had a larger head start on them, Alison would occasionally glimpse the other bank, seeing Tauriel and Legolas keeping pace with them as they too sliced through the Orcs' ranks, and she could barely feel the nicks and scratches she obtained from the Orcs as she cut them down, Natrem and Maodus glinting wickedly amongst the spatters of blood and gore upon the blades.

After what felt like hours, but in reality was only about ten minutes or so, the Orcs' numbers were beginning to grow along the bank, and Alison saw vague dark shapes moving through the river farther ahead, and she felt some relief that she had managed to catch up to the Company, at least somewhat.

She and Johnathan continued to sprint, and Alison tried to ignore the stitch she was beginning to get in her side as their path sloped gradually up-hill, the bank becoming steeper and rockier as she ran, still slashing with Natrem and Maodus. She heard the sound of another blade whirling behind her, and she assumed Johnathan had spent all of his arrows and was now wielding Anddrilri as they pressed on, farther down the riverbank after the Company.

Alison knew they were getting closer when she began to hear their shouts, and she looked up after decapitating an Orc and ignoring the flecks of blood that splashed onto her cheek when she heard Thorin's voice yell, "Cut the log!"

She saw the Company in their barrels down below her, and the huge log spanning the length of the river with Orcs piled onto it, waiting for the Company to get closer, and she watched, after stabbing another Orc through the gut, as the Dwarves used the varying weapons they had taken from fallen Orcs to hit the log in the same place as they passed beneath it, until they had effectively chopped through the whole thing and dumped the Orcs into the river. Alison felt a strange glow of pride from their tactic before she was distracted by another Orc leaping at her, though she finished it off quickly after running it through with Maodus.

She and Johnathan pushed on, and after pausing to deal with a slightly more challenging Orc, Johnathan leaped past her, moving with an almost liquid-like grace and kicking an Orc in the chest, sending it toppling into the river below. Alison took a moment to appreciate his obvious skill, watching in detached amazement as the Hero left absolute carnage in his wake, leaving scattered limbs, crumpled bodies, and pools of oily black blood behind as he pressed forward, a savage grin on his face and a dark light in his depthless eyes she didn't like, but she followed after him nonetheless, wiping a trickle of blood from a scratch she had sustained on the cheek before sprinting forward.

As Alison overtook Johnathan again, twirling under an Orc's guard and ramming Natrem through its throat, making her stomach curl, she heard him shout from behind her in incredulity, "What in the bloody hell is that prancing Elf doing?"

Alison spared a quick glance over her shoulder and gave a harsh bark of laughter as she saw Legolas pirouetting on top of the Dwarves' heads in the river, spinning and whirling and looking an awful lot like a ballerina as he shot arrow after arrow from his vantage point before running across the Dwarves' heads until he reached their side of the bank, just a few yards ahead of them.

A group of Orcs swarmed Legolas, and the Elf prince fought back in the sort of deadly grace that all Elves seemed to possess, reminding her of Johnathan almost as her and said Hero sprinted over to him and took on their own adversaries.

She saw Legolas give a nasty hit with his bow to one while simultaneously stabbing one of his last arrows into the eye socket of another, and Johnathan running through two Orcs' chests in one staggering blow, before Alison felt a weight slam into her back with the force of a monster truck, knocking the breath out of her lungs as a whiff of hot, rancid breath blew across her cheek and made her gag.

As if on instinct, she threw her weight back into the Orc, startling it off balance, as she brought Natrem up and back in her hand, forcing her arm back with as much strength as she could muster and angling the tip of the sword up so it drove through the Orc's gut, tearing through flesh and tendon until a horrible retching sound reached her ears and she yanked the sword out, stepping away as the Orc's grip on her slackened and it fell to the ground, dead, behind her.

Not having any time to pause and wonder how in the name of the Valar she had pulled off that stunt, Alison threw herself forward at an Orc that was raising its mace to bash in Legolas' skull, and her heart stuttered as she realized that the Elf prince was engaged with another Orc and could not see the blow coming. She pushed forward, knowing that she might be too late, until a wicked-looking scimitar flew out of nowhere and impaled the Orc, killing it outright before her.

Alison looked, wild-eyed, to the river, and she locked gazes with Thorin, who watched the trio on top of the ridge with a fierce expression before the raging, white-frothed current bore him and the Company further downstream.

"C'mon, Alison," Johnathan said, grabbing her wrist once the last of the Orcs had been slain. "I think we've overstayed our invitation a tad too long."

Alison nodded, and Johnathan released her wrist, beginning to sprint down the bank without interference as they had cut down all of the Orcs that had been ahead of them, though Alison could hear more of them behind as they raced after the Company still, intent on catching their prey.

Before taking off after Johnathan, Alison paused, turning back and meeting Legolas' gaze. The Elf prince stared at her for a long moment, looking as unruffled as ever, before giving her an imperceptible nod, which Alison took to meant that he would not try and stop her from leaving.

She gave him one last, searching look, before nodding her own head and taking off through the undergrowth, the ground underneath her boots beginning to slope downwards as she ran after Johnathan and the Company, leaving Legolas behind as his eyes bored into her until she was swallowed by the foliage.

Fili had done many questionable things in his life, but as the Company floated down the river in their barrels, the current having slowed into a lazy crawl, he had to say that escaping the Woodland Realm of King Thranduil in barrels was definitely bordering on the edge of madness.

"Anything behind us?" Thorin called from the front of the drifting Company, and Fili turned his head, seeing nothing racing along the banks after them, and while that was a good sign considering the Orcs and Elves, he still felt a pit in his stomach as he could see no sign of Alison anywhere, either.

"Nothing that I can see," Balin answered Thorin, and Fili could tell from his strained tone that the older Dwarf was concerned for Alison, as well.

At that moment, Bofur emerged from the interior of his barrel, spewing out a mouthful of water and exclaiming, "I think we've outrun the Orcs!"

"Not for long," Thorin pointed out. "We've lost the current." He began to paddle for the rocky shore to their right, Dwalin and Balin following suit. "Make for the shore!" He called, and everyone began to follow, using their hands to propel them through the water.

Fili drifted until he was level with Kili, ashen-faced with his eyes hooded and his teeth clenched as he made jaggedly for the shore. Seeing his brother fighting against so much pain wrapped a vise around Fili's heart, and he put one hand on Kili's barrel, out of his sight, and subtly pushed him along to the shore with his own barrel.

When they reached the rocky bank, Fili stepped quickly out of his barrel, his legs shaky from being cramped up for so long, and he bent down to help Kili, but the younger prince only shook his head, cringing as he dragged himself slowly out of the barrel and to his feet.

He began to make his way unsteadily up the rocky bank, favoring his left leg as his right limped along, and Fili followed after him, his concern mounting higher as his brother all but collapsed onto a rock, tearing a piece of his tunic to dab at the wound the arrow had gouged in his thigh.

"Why is it always you that has to save the day?" Fili admonished lightly as he crouched before his brother, examining the wound, and Kili grimaced.

"At least we're all alive," he countered, and Fili nodded, though his chest squeezed painfully as he thought of Alison.

Kili dabbed at the wound again, his breath hissing through his teeth, and Fili looked at him in concern; seeing his brother's look, Kili's face immediately tightened into a blank mask, and he looked away as he said, "I'm fine, it's nothing."

Fili snorted. "And I'm Smaug," he said sarcastically. "I'm getting Óin over here. He'll give you something that'll protect against infection."

Kili said nothing, and Fili waved the healer Dwarf over. Óin came and knelt beside the brothers, examining Kili's leg intently for a moment before reaching into his tunic pocket.

"You're lucky this survived the fight with the river, laddie," Óin said, as he removed his medicinal pouch and brought out some sort of thick paste that made Fili wrinkle his nose when he unscrewed the cap. "Aloe Vera," the Dwarf said in response to Fili's look as he dabbed some of the gel onto Kili's leg. "It'll fight against the wound's infection before it settles in completely."

Kili's face tightened and his jaw worked, but otherwise he stayed silent as Óin finished tending his leg and brought out a wrap of bandages. "If I had tweezers I'd see if I could pull out any remaining shards of the arrow head, but this will have to do for right now." He said, sounding apologetic, but Fili squeezed his shoulder gratefully, letting the Dwarf know his efforts right now were appreciated nonetheless.

"On your feet," Thorin commanded suddenly, as everyone had made it to shore, and Fili looked to his uncle incredulously.

"Kili's wounded," he said. "His leg needs binding."

"There's on Orc pack on our tail," Thorin countered, striding up the rocks. "We keep moving." His face was hard as he said it, but his eyes were soft as he looked at Kili, and Fili knew his uncle was concerned over his youngest nephew's well-being despite his words, though he also knew Thorin had a point.

"Keep moving? To where?" Balin echoed, and to everyone's surprise it was Bilbo who spoke up.

"To the Mountain," he said, and Fili noticed with vague amusement that the Hobbit looked like a half-drowned cat, shaking and small with his hair and clothes plastered to his thinner frame. "We're so close. We can't stop now."

"A lake lies between us and that mountain, and we have no way to cross it." Balin pointed out reasonably.

"So then we go around," Bilbo said.

"The Orcs will run us down, as sure as daylight," Dwalin broke in. "Especially when we've no weapons to defend ourselves."

There was a tense moment of silence, until Thorin said to Fili and Óin, "Bind his leg, quickly." He gestured to Kili. "You have two minutes."

"Um, does no one else seem to have noticed that we're short one person?" Bilbo spoke up again, sounding anxious, and Fili looked to the Hobbit quickly. "Where's Alison?"

Another silence settled upon the bank, and the Dwarves who hadn't realized the Hero was gone all looked around frantically, their faces worried and confused. Fili felt his own heart kick in response, a heavy weight settling in his gut.

The last times he had seen Alison, she had been scrambling to shore after the mishap with her barrel, and then he had seen her once again, decapitating an Orc with a deadly prowess he had been shocked by in the brief moment he had seen her, but that had been ages ago. Fili had a sudden vision of her lying on the grassy banks of the river far back, covered in blood and her pale eyes staring unseeing at the late afternoon sky above, until a wave of nausea curled in his stomach and he shut that thought down instantly. She was not dead. She couldn't be.

"Oh, don't wring your little hearts out," a cold, arrogant, and irritatingly familiar voice drawled from behind them, and the Company whirled to see Johnathan striding down the bank towards them, out of the undergrowth behind, as Alison trailed after him, looking slightly annoyed as he spread his arms out in a grand gesture. "Your warrior princess is quite safe from harm now."

"Is it possible for you to say anything without sounding remotely bastard-like?" Alison grumbled, shooting the other Hero a glare as she stepped around him, but she smiled when she saw the rest of the Company standing in shock before her. "Oh, hey guys!"

The Company only stared, their eyes flicking between her and Johnathan in varying degrees of shock, anger, and mistrust as the two warriors stood before them. Fili took them in, as well, noticing Johnathan's casual stance and the arrogant curve to his mouth, his pale hair sticking to his sweaty forehead as his dark eyes raked lazily over them all, his bottom lip swollen and encrusted with a trickle of dry blood, and his clothes stained with Orc blood.

Then his eyes flickered over to Alison as she stood beside the other Hero, her wet hair clinging to her neck where she sported a brilliant purple bruise that was turning black and blue on her collarbone; besides a shallow cut on one of her cheeks, the numerous nicks and tears in her jacket and the flecks of Orc blood on her face, she looked fine, her eyes dancing with a sort of fiery aliveness as she sheathed her swords on her back.

Finally, Thorin stepped forward, his eyes blazing and his face as unyielding as a mountain as he came to a stop before the two.

"What are you doing here?" he growled at Johnathan, and the pale warrior's smirk merely grew broader at Thorin's frigid tone.

"Such appreciation for someone who was trying to defend you out there," he replied, and Fili saw something jump in Thorin's jaw.

"Do not try my patience right now, Man," he said harshly. "We left you behind when you went frolicking off by yourself to Dol Guldur, and now here you are, towing the same Orcs you went to scout after you and leading them right to us."

"And what is your implication behind that, exactly?" Johnathan questioned, and his voice had gone colder and harder, his smirk vanishing to be replaced with an eerily blank expression. He didn't even seem bothered by Thorin's admission to leaving him behind as his fathomless eyes bore into the Dwarf king.

"I think you know what I'm talking about," Thorin practically spat, and Alison stepped forward then.

"Whoa," she said, holding up her hands as she faced Thorin, confused. "Thorin, I'm pretty sure Johnathan didn't lead those Orcs to us. They were probably just following his trail—"

"Don't be foolish, Alison," Thorin snarled, and she blinked as if he'd slapped her. "You know as well as I do that he is far too smart to leave a trail for the Orcs to follow."

"He's right," Johnathan piped up, glaring at the Dwarf. "But I'm afraid you've gotten it backwards, my dear Dwarf; I was the one following the Orcs, not the other way around. They were the ones who led me to you."

"And why would we believe you?" Thorin said, crossing his arms menacingly. "I have no trust for you, Ashburne, so why in Mahal's blessed name—"

"Jesus Christ, will you just stop?" Alison snapped, shocking the king into silence at her venomous tone and icy glare. "Johnathan just saved my life, and all of yours. You should be grateful—"

"You did just as much as him," Thorin retorted, catching Alison off-guard. "And you have earned my trust, while he has not—"

Alison threw up her hands in exasperation. "He was sent by the Valar to help me!" she shouted, and the Company stared at her, her eyes practically spitting sparks. "He's my ancestor, who has already proved himself once before in the War of the Last freaking Alliance! Every sign points that we need him! What else do you want him to do? Perform a damn blood sacrifice? Can you just stop being such a bull-headed prick of a king for once and accept that we need him, since obviously he's not going anywhere now?"

There was a horrible, swelling silence in which everyone only stared, their mouths gaping, as Alison raked a few strands of loose hair out of her eyes, breathing hard through her nose as if she were trying to refrain herself from punching something.

"I second that motion," Johnathan said finally, raising a mocking hand, but his smirk promptly faded as Alison whirled on him.

"And you," she said, pointing to the Hero as Thorin had seemed to turn to stone behind her, unmoving except for his eyes. Johnathan raised his eyebrows at her. "Stop being so annoying and immature, for once. You're not helping yourself at all."

She turned away from his half-amused, half-incredulous expression, facing Thorin again, who watched her carefully with his blue eyes, so like the water around them, yet they blazed with a fire that managed to be scalding and freezing at the same time. "Don't try and fight against fate, Thorin," she said, in a much calmer tone. "Let him come. I feel like we're going to need him before the end."

Thorin said nothing still, and Alison sighed, moving past him and making her way over, much to Fili's surprise, to where he, Kili, and Óin were. She crouched down next to Fili, and he looked over at her, having a strong desire to put a comforting arm around her shoulders, but he refrained himself from doing so, instead watching her eyes gaze at Kili with concern and something else that he couldn't read.

"Kili, are you all right?" she asked, and the younger Dwarf nodded, flashing her a strained grin.

"Could be better," he said, wincing as the healer Dwarf tied off his bandages with a tight flourish to stop the brunt of the bleeding. "But could be worse, too."

Alison nodded, and Fili turned to her, opening his mouth to question her if she was all right herself, but the words died in his throat as he noticed something loom over the bank above them.

Alison followed his stare and gasped, attracting the attention of the other Dwarves and Johnathan, who looked up as well and started at what they saw.

A tall, grim-faced man stood on the rocky ground above them, his features as hard and cold as iron as he aimed a huge bow, already notched with an arrow, straight at the form of Ori, who had been emptying the water out of his shoes near the river.

Dwalin picked up a fallen tree branch from the ground and sprang in front of the young Dwarf, raising the branch just as the arrow embedded itself into the wood, the tip only inches away from the bald warrior's face.

In unison, Alison and Fili shot to their feet, the warrior removing her swords in one fluent movement as Kili staggered upright beside them, raising a rock in his hand to throw, but the Company all stopped and stared as the archer shot another arrow, ricocheting the rock out of Kili's hand in one precise shot.

The archer loaded another arrow in a flat second, aiming it at the Company at large, his dark eyes fierce and stony as he warned, "Do it again, and you're dead."

Tolo hi – Come now *Note: 'hi' is pronounced he instead of hi*

Well, in case you haven't heard, I decided to post this chapter early due to a slight disturbance in the Force, that disturbance being SOPA (or the "Notice and Staydown" aka SOPA 2.0) so if this is to be a last chapter, guess I'll go out with a cliffhanger. (IF anything should happen to this story; I'm 85% sure nothing will happen, but just to be on the safe side I'll start doing disclaimers, though it *might* not help much. Just might).

So, Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Warner Bros, MGM, and New Line Cinema, except for Alison, Johnathan, and whatever randomness I made up by myself.

Anyway, this chapter was a bully to write. I tried to give it that action-packed edge, but not overwhelm you guys, since it pretty much followed the movie, and if you're anything like me, who's seen DoS 14 times to date, it could get a little redundant reading it, which is why I decided to have Alison do what she did, and I'm pretty happy with that choice because we get to see how much she's grown as a fighter and how bad-ass she can be ;)

But besides the trouble finding the balance between too much action and not enough, I had a lot of fun writing this chapter! Sassy Bilbo, kick-ass Alison, Tauriel saves Alison and Kili (again), arggghhh injured Kili (I'm sorry, but it had to be done; hopefully you'll see why), Ballerina/Good Guy Legolas, concerned Fili, angry Thorin (*snorts*), BARD, annndddd the reappearance of J-Ash! Dun dun dunn. Wonder what he's been up to these last few chapters? Guess we'll find out...

Anyway, thank you for your reviews last time, and to all of my new readers/favorites/followers and old alike, thank you as well! What do you think about J-Ash's arrival at this point in the story; good or bad omen? Let me know in a review!

Thanks again, lovelies! IF this is the last chapter of TMoT, I seriously thank you and love you all! Hopefully see you soon with Chapter 27!

(Psst...if this happens to be deleted, you can still find me on Tumblr (dr-watsonn) and Twitter (dr_watsonn) ((I know, I'm original)) )

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